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American Photographer Waswo Captures Images Of Rural Life, Crafts in India


Waswo X. Waswo has spent a great deal of his time in India, where he has been trying to capture images of rural life and traditional Indian craft. The results of that inspired effort have been showcased at numerous exhibitions both in the United States and in India.

Hand-painted photos of villagers

Waswo's latest exhibit is called "A Studio in Rajasthan," showing until Feburary 6th at the Pallet Art Gallery in New Delhi. Every photograph in Waswo's new exhibition was taken over the past three years at his studio in Udaipur, India, where he has teamed with a variety of local artists to help him create his unique photographs.

"I have several different artists who are collaborating with me now," he says. "So they painted a backdrop either on aluminum, glass or a canvas. This is hung in the studio. We bring in some props. We bring in a model, who generally plays himself. For instance, if we bring somebody who is a farmer, he plays a farmer in the studio. Then, after that, we're making a black and white digital print."

Waswo ended up photographing dozens of villagers. Then, he says, a local artist suggested an idea that appealed to him.

"Rajesh Soni is a third-generation Rajasthani [photo] hand colorist," he says. "The craft of his was dying out. When he saw the photos that I was producing in the studio, he got very excited. He said, 'Cha cha' - people call me 'cha cha'; it means uncle - so he said, 'Cha cha, I can paint these.'"

Using traditional methods to create contemporary works

Waswo says he liked the hand-watercolored photos and became more open to trying another local craft - the miniature painting.

"I started making little sketches," he says. "And I'm not a good draftsman, so they were very primitive little sketches, autobiographical in some nature about my life and existence in India. Then, I would give them to an artist whose name is Rakesh Vijay. And Rakesh would take my sketch, and he would come back in about a week and have perfected it and give me the finished drawing. We talk about it a little bit, maybe make some changes. Then he would go make a miniature painting. The results were just beautiful."

Waswo says the miniature paintings created in his studio have been a big hit with visitors at the New Delhi gallery, and Waswo says he knows why.

"Miniature painting in India has been a tradition, a sort of a copyist tradition where this has been presented in this way, and you follow the master and create it in this way again. And only very slight variations are allowed," he says. "I think people relate to this because my miniatures have become very contemporary. And they are depicting scenes and ideas that normally are not depicted through miniature painting.

"And I think another reason people, especially Indians, are liking these is because we're using it as a springboard for a lot of contemporary Indian arts. So, I think people are reacting very positively because they see that's a bit of evolution of the genre of miniature painting, but also it's a bit of a homage, I guess, to the contemporary Indian art scene, which is very vibrant right now."

Many talents combine to create art

The American photographer says working with local artists and craftsmen in India has been one of the most interesting experiences of his life.

"At this point, I'm working with so many people," he says. "It's become a bit, I don't want to compare myself to Andy Warhol [a famous American pop artist, filmmaker and author who became a leading figure in the pop art movement and lived from 1928 to 1987], but I feel it's Andy Warhol's factory sometimes because I have so many people coming in and out my house and in and out my studio, and I'm always busy doing these projects.

"So, for instance, Rakesh paints the miniatures. Then the miniature painting goes to another man whose name is Shanker Kumawat, a senior artisan in Udaipur. He's very, very good is doing these intricate borders. He paints beautiful borders with a paint that actually has gold powder in it. So they are actually gold borders that he is painting."

Waswo's New Delhi exhibition, "A Studio in Rajasthan," showcases more than 100 watercolored images and miniature paintings. The American photographer says this is more than just another exhibition to him. It's a chance for him to express his growing admiration for India's rural people and their traditional arts and crafts.

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